Category Archives: MS Office

Separate Presentation From Content – Office Software

In my previous post I made the point that the Web works best when you separate presentation from content. That is good as far as it goes, but I want to now extend the discussion in another direction, and that is how to use Office software to the maximum advantage. This applies to any Office suite, whether you use Microsoft Office, WordPerfect Office, OpenOffice.org, Libre Office, or indeed any other office productivity suite. I have worked with all the above, have trained people in several of them, and have had experience with how powerful these techniques can be. In fact, I developed an 18-hour course for college students that employed these techniques. The students had mostly been putting off taking this course as long as possible because they did not see the need for this. But the University had made this a requirement, and they would frequently take it near the end of their degree program. But after taking the course, I almost always got the reaction that they were angry that they had not had the course at the beginning of the program because it was so useful. This course covered the basics of using Microsoft Office (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Access), but I have used this approach in training on other office suites with just as much success.

Now, something that just happened to me illustrates a useful point. I was on a Web page, and clicked on a link to a PDF file. The file opened, I read what I wanted to read, and when I was done, by force of habit, I clicked the close button on the upper right to get rid of the PDF file. After all, I was done with it, right? Arrrggghhh! I just closed my browser and all of the tabs I had opened. This is why the first thing I do with a new browser is set it up to always open the tabs I last had opened. But the point I want to make here is that my browser automatically opened and displayed a PDF file. That used to require calling a separate program, but apparently that is no longer necessary. And I suspect we will see more of this. For instance, Google Docs is starting to bring all of your Office documents into the browser. At some point the technology is going to treat any piece of data/text/whatever as raw material and display it. And when that happens, all of the arguments on how to construct proper Web pages will apply equally to constructing Office documents.

That is not all, though. In my day job I am a Project Manager, and I have a need to manage large numbers of documents. Documentation management becomes a real concern, and I have to say that most of the places I have worked do not do a good job of it. I think Microsoft Sharepoint, if used properly, could be a good step in the right direction. And for those who are in as position to go the Open Source route, Alfresco could be the solution. While I generally prefer Open Source solutions, Sharepoint is really pretty good, and if you work in a Microsoft shop you may find it easier to promote as a solution. In either case, all of the issues of semantic encoding, of finding the document you need from a large haystack of documents, still apply.

Going back to my academic days at that university, as I was the Office expert I was given the task of putting together the catalog. What that meant was combining a large number of documents, each from a different department, into something that could be considered a unified whole. And these departments did not make the job easy. No two of them used the same convention for laying out their information. and as I recall none of them used the proper semantic tagging at all. Everything was done using font changes, the space bar, inconsistent lists, and if any of them used tabs at all they did it the wrong way. So my first major task was to go through all of these submissions and use semantic tagging. In word processing programs this is done by using what are called styles, and maybe you can see the relationship between styles and style sheets. They are really the same idea, just applied in different domains.

So the proper way to use a word processing program (and again, this applies to Word, WordPerfect, Write, AbiWord, or any other program out there) is to apply a style to each element, just the way you apply a tag in a Web page. The title of your document should be given a style like Header 1, a major section sub-head should be Header 2, and so on. Now, the word processing programs may take you in the wrong direction  at first because they will have an appearance already assigned, or will ask you to specify an appearance when you use the style. Resist the urge! The point in creating your document should be to get the semantic encoding done correctly. Once that is done, you can assign an appearance to each element, and achieve a unified look-and-feel to your document, or even to a whole group of documents.

I will illustrate this with an example from my academic days. In the early days of using personal computers, they were adopted by universities as a tool for their students and faculty. In one large university, they were adopted for use in Freshman Composition classes. In the U.S. at least, these classes are pretty much universal, as the faculty want to make sure that all students can write papers at a minimal (at the very least) level of competency. At this particular university, they had different sections of the course, some of which used Macintosh computers, and the others using DOS computers running WordPerfect. When they did a comparative study of the writing of these two groups, they found something very interesting. The DOS/WordPerfect group were consistently writing better papers with superior content. This was a surprise, and they looked for any possible correlation that might explain it. But the two groups of students seemed to have comparable grades coming out of high school, they had comparable test scores on the standardized tests used for admission, and in general on all measurements the could think of the two groups were in effect identical, except that one group used Macintosh and the other DOS/WordPerfect.

They finally decided that the most likely explanation lay in what each platform allowed you to do. Macintosh computers were the first to have Graphical User Interface. They came with a variety of font tools, graphics tools, and were in general the first personal computers with a graphic design capability. That is one reason why Macintosh got such a big head start with graphic designers and maintains that to this day. DOS computers running WordPerfect were quite different. In the mid-to-late 1980s, they ran on monochrome screens, and basically you were presented with a black screen with a blinking cursor. In later versions, for early color monitors, the screen became blue instead of black, but otherwise the same: a blank screen with a blinking cursor. The only thing you could do with these computers was write. On a Macintosh, though, you were presented right away with font choices, with graphics choices, page layout considerations, etc. The conclusion of the researchers was that having all of these choices available to the students distracted them from the main point, which was to write good compositions.

Nor is this only applicable to word processing. Another area where this crops up is with presentation software (e.g. PowerPoint, Impress, etc.). Most presentation programs will start you with a choice among graphical templates and similar distractions. Again, resist the urge! To make a good presentation, your first concern should be to logically organize your information. When I am creating a presentation I frequently start with an outline. Many programs will let you take an outline and turn it into a presentation with a few mouse clicks. When you have done so, you can then apply any template you like to give the presentation the graphic look you want.

One other advantage of properly using semantic tagging, which is similar to what we found in looking at Web pages, is that it becomes a real time saver. For instance, suppose you had a long document with a number of sections. Each time you came to a section you could set the appearance of your section header by clicking on the font you want, what size it should be, whether or not it should be indented, and so on. Or you could do it properly by just declaring the element to be a particular header (say Header 2), and then setting the appearance for all Header 2’s in your document. Furthermore, if you need to make a change, for whatever reason, you don’t need to go page by page through the document looking for all of the places that need to be changed. You just change the characteristics of the Header 2 style once and the whole document updates.

So for all of the reasons given, using proper semantic encoding and separating the presentation from the content is just as important in Office software applications as it is in building Web pages. In fact, it is a fundamental principle of good information architecture.

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Microsoft Innovation

Although some wags may wish to claim Microsoft does not innovate, that is not at all true. Microsoft does innovate, but not always successfully. There are two reasons I have noticed for this.

The first is that they have a large installed base and a large market for upgrades that they are always trying to protect. that means they don’t want to innovate in ways that endanger their “cash cows”, which are Windows, and even more so, Office. And if you have read the classic work The Innovator’s Dilemma, by Clayton M. Christensen, you will recognize that this sets them up for an eventual fall when a disruptive innovation comes along. In fact, Windows is probably facing a disruptive innovation in the form of mobile, particularly tablets. And what is ironic about this is that for years Microsoft was the main and seemingly only promoter of tablets. Why did they get into this situation? Because they wanted tablets that fit into their paradigm of the Windows computer.  And in the other part of mobile, the cell phone market, it is clear that Microsoft is at best the third horse in a two horse race. Yet people who have used the latest Windows Phone 7 say it is slick and matches up well with iOS and Android.

But when their backs are to the wall, they can certainly innovate. An early example of this was in Web browsers. When Mark Andreesen incautiously declared that Netscape’s ambition was to replace the OS, Bill Gates was able to turn Microsoft around fairly quickly and produce a better browser. They also engaged in anti-competitive and illegal practices, as determined by a U.S. Federal Court, but we should never lose sight of the fact that by the time of IE4 Microsoft was offering a better browser than Netscape. The problem is that once they had dispatched Netscape the whole browser  operation seemed to go into hibernation. This let Netscape’s successor, Firefox, come along and grab both market share and mind share. And since then Google Chrome has looked likely to overtake both of them. This threat has stimulated innovation again, though whether it is too little, too late is a major question. But IE9 is a credible alternative to Chrome and Firefox, and is notably standards-compliant.

One of the big problems Microsoft has is that it does not know how to sell the idea of its software innovations very well. The joke about this is that if Microsoft went into the sushi business, they would market their product as “cold, dead, raw fish”. Mmmm, yummy.

What brings on this observation is that Microsoft has what may be a genuinely innovative and useful product that almost no one knows about, and that is Sharepoint. This product is something that aids collaboration, is business-oriented, and can tie together a lot of separate products. It could be connected to all of Office, including Outlook, to create a product that wold get Microsoft back into the mobile/tablet market successfully. Right now iPads, and increasingly Android tablets, are coming into business environments despite being completely unsuited to that task. Microsoft is an Enterprise computing vendor that should have all of the natural advantages here, but it looks like they will give away this market through inaction.

Office 2007 Ribbon

As you may know if you have purchased a new(er) copy of Microsoft Office, they introduced a new User Interface (UI) in Office 2007 called the Ribbon, and they mean it. They make no provision for going back to the menus of Office 2003.

This has lead to some controversy, many heated exchanges, and not a little name-calling. People used to the older interface accuse the designers of making change just for the sake of making change, and the designers in turn think that the people who want the old interface are stuck-in-the-mud Luddites, who cannot keep up with needed improvements. I don’t want to weigh in on this aspect of the controversy, other than to say that I can understand where each side is coming from to some degree. I think you get this any time you attempt to change an interface element. I am seeing it now in Ubuntu with the decision to move the window buttons from the right to the left.

The point that you might want to keep in mind here is that the change gives every appearance of being permanent, and I have heard that OpenOffice.org is considering making similar changes to their UI. So if you want to simply get on with it, to get some work done without fighting any major battles, I think there is merit in learning the new UI and making peace with it. And I can offer an interesting resource to help. One of the major designers maintains a blog on MSDN, and explains a lot of this. Unfortunately, finding things on that blog is not as easy as one might hope, so someone else published a guide with links to all of the pertinent posts. That guide is available here. By going here and reading the posts that Patrick Schmid has organized (from the blog of Jensen Harris), you can start with why they thought a change was necessary, learn about the philosophy of the new Ribbon UI, and details about how it works. This is highly recommended for getting up to speed.